Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.
V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lal.
The whole world is a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge…
But the main thing to recall, is to have no, have no fear at all.
This is possibly the most famous teaching of the great Hassidic Rebbe, Nachman of Bratslov. It is so famous that Baruch Chait turned it into a song which any Jewish child who goes to summer camp or youth group learns by heart.
To be honest, until this week I never really thought about what it means. “The whole world is a very narrow bridge.” Ok. I get that. It is a metaphor for the precariousness of life. It is difficult to know what the best path is, and we are constantly forced to choose between options that could plunge us over the side, not necessarily to literal destruction, but perhaps to spiritual oblivion. A bit dramatic, but I can accept that.
“But the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.” Stop. That is ridiculous. Despite the constant danger we face, we are supposed to banish all fear? Is that really what Rebbe Nachman is saying? Not only is it a virtually impossible ideal for most human beings, fear is a good thing. Fear saves lives. Come on, any ten year old who saw Inside Out knows that.
What is Rebbe Nachman talking about?
The problem is that the person who translated the song into English wanted to make sure that it would rhyme – “the main thing to recall is to have no hear at all.”
Conveniently, it also rhymes with the Hebrew. Lo l’fached k’lal. What does k’lal mean? To be fair, it can mean “at all.” But I don’t think that is what it means here.
The Hebrew of the verse is quite clever. The word is repeated three times. Listen carefully: Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od. V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lal. Kol, Kulo, and K’lal are all from the same root.
Let me suggest a more accurate translation: “The whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge. And the main principle is not to be afraid…”
It could have ended right here. But then we add the final word. K’lal.
What is a k’lal? A k’lal is an all-inclusive principal. It is a synonym for ikar. Here, I think it means “And the main principle is not to be afraid entirely.” We should not be overwhelmed by fear. Because fear can overwhelm us.
Fear can prevent us from taking action. It can cloud our vision and prevent us from seeing things as they truly are. Fear, if we are “entirely” afraid, destroys hope.
But fear also leads us to take risks. It causes us to reach out to each other. It inspires religious yearning. Many of us respond to fear by turning to God.
This morning’s Haftarah, from the Book of Jeremiah, takes place during an extremely fearful time. Jeremiah is a Prophet who lives during the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, through the reigns of its last four monarchs. He witnesses the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and ultimately flees to Egypt with some of the other refugees. He prophesizes a seventy year period of exile, followed by a return to the Holy Land and a restoration of Israel.
Throughout his career, Jeremiah is a reluctant Prophet. The people hate him for his pronouncements of doom and destruction and his critique of their behavior, but they are never able to witness the deep love and compassion he feels for them. The other Prophets ridicule Jeremiah, and the King cannot not stand him. Along with his external challenges, Jeremiah lives with constant internal struggles. He argues with God continually, lamenting his plight. His is a truly tormented soul, but he is unable to prevent the Prophetic message from bursting forth.
As the reading begins, Jeremiah is languishing in prison in Jerusalem. He is there for speaking truth to power. Unlike the other court prophets, who are all “yes men,” telling King Zedekiah exactly what he wants to hear, Jeremiah speaks the word of God.
At the time, Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians. Jeremiah issues a pronouncement that God intends to deliver the city into the enemy’s hands. King Zedekiah himself will be taken captive and sent to Babylon, where King Nebuchadnezzar will triumph over him in person.
Needless to say, the Judean King does not like the message. He expresses his displeasure by “shooting the messenger,” so to speak. Jeremiah is thrown into prison.
Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel comes to visit him in prison, as Jeremiah has prophetically foreseen. Hanamel, it seems, has fallen upon hard times and is no longer able to keep possession of the land that has been his ancestors’ since ancient times.
As we read about in the Torah portion, in ancient Israel, land is supposed to remain in the family. If property must be sold off temporarily, it will be restored every half century during the Jubilee year. Until the Jubilee year, however, other members of the family have the right to redeem the land themselves. In fact, if they have the means to do so, it is an obligation to buy it back. That is what Hanamel is asking Jeremiah, his heir, to do. Hanamel cannot keep the land, so he asks his goel, his redeemer, to buy it from him.
It is not really a good time for Jeremiah.
First of all, he is in jail. His future is uncertain. Second, the property in question is in Anatot, which is a few kilometers north of Jerusalem. By this point, the entire country has been ravaged by the Babylonians. Many Israelites have already been sent into exile, and Jerusalem is under siege. Finally, Jeremiah knows that he is going to personally go into exile.
Generally speaking, these are not good conditions for real estate speculation.
Nevertheless, Jeremiah purchases the land for seventeen shekels of silver. He weighs out the money, writes up a contract, and has it witnessed and signed. Next, he deposits the contract with his personal secretary, Barukh ben Neriah in front of his cousin and the witnesses. He instructs Barukh to place the document in an earthen vessel so that it will remain safe and unharmed for many years.
Is Jeremiah crazy? Or is he just a terrible businessman?
Perhaps his statement at the conclusion of the business transaction explains what is going through Jeremiah’s mind. He declares, “For thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.'” (Jer. 32:15)
What could possibly explain Jeremiah’s decision? In a single word: hope. Tikvah.
Jeremiah knows, better than anyone, the direness of the situation. He knows that God has chosen the Babylonians as a Divine instrument to punish Israel for its sinfulness. He knows that he and many of his brothers and sisters will be forced to leave their land. He also knows that they will remain in exile for generations – seventy years in all. But in those seventy years, the Babylonian Empire will fall. The descendants of the exiles, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will be restored.
Jeremiah’s hopeful realism contrasts with the foolishness of the rest of the nation. The people, the prophets, and the King do not want to hear Jeremiah’s truth. Instead, they would rather hear false assurances that things are about to turn around. The Babylonians will fall and Israel will be made great again. This is not hope, but wishful thinking. This is fear blinding the masses from the reality of their situation.
In the second half of the Haftarah, Jeremiah offers a prayer to God. He recounts God’s power as the Creator of the world, extols God’s compassion, and recalls how God freed the Israelites from slavery and brought them to the Land of Milk and Honey. Then Jeremiah acknowledges that the people have persisted in not following God’s instructions, leading to the current crisis. Jeremiah ends his prayer with a statement that is either a question or a challenge. “Yet you, Lord God, said to me: Buy the land for money and call in witnesses-when the city is at the mercy of the Chaldeans!”
God’s response: “Behold I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too wondrous for Me?” The Haftarah ends here, but God’s response to Jeremiah continues, explaining how the people will eventually return and the land will flourish once again.
While the present situation is bleak, Jeremiah has not given up hope. He redeems his family’s property now, knowing that he will never personally set foot on it. But he has hope that his descendants will, one day, make their return.
We are a people that has lived with hope for thousands of years. Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah, “The Hope,” expresses it beautifully.
Od lo avda tikvateinu, Hatikvah bat sh’not alfayim. “Our hope is still not lost, the hope of two thousand years.” Through thousands of years of exile, during some very bleak times, the Jewish people has always had hope.
This is what Rebbe Nachman, living in his difficult times, might have been thinking about. Despite the darkness, despite the narrowness, the seeming lack of options, we must not be overwhelmed by fear. We must keep hope.
This is a powerful message for us not only as a nation, but as individual human beings.
We each face a lot of difficulties over the course of our lives. Sickness, mental illness, abuse, broken relationships, deaths of loved ones. Some of us have lived through war and persecution. We have faced financial struggles. The difficulties we experience sometimes persist for many years. And some people seem to face more than their share.
Do we have the ability, like Jeremiah, to redeem land in the face of despair. Can we maintain our hope during dark times?
Can we heed the encouragement of Rebbe Nachman? Even though the world is a narrow bridge, sometimes vanishingly narrow, can we avoid being consumed by fear?